Foundation matching: how to find your undertone

Your skin has a secondary tone and it’s the key to finding your foundation shade

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas
Oct 06, 2020 · 6 min read

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

While your skin tone might change based on how much sun you’re getting, our skin undertone is more constant — and hard to see. In both visual art and cosmetics, undertones are a secondary quality that describes the temperature of a color. Your undertone exists on a spectrum from “warm” to “cool.” Undertones that are both warm and cool (or neither) are considered “neutral.” Since the human eye isn’t a thermometer, skin undertones are often described in terms of other colors:

  • Cool undertones might have hints of red or blue.

  • Warm undertones might have hints of yellow or orange.

  • Neutral undertones might have a mix of cool and warm hues, or lack both.

  • Olive undertones are a type of neutral undertone with hints of green or gray.

Of course, these colors aren’t always obvious, which is one reason why figuring out undertones can be tricky. But once you do, it makes matching your foundation to your natural skin color a cinch. The best way to find your undertone is to use a combination of methods to evaluate your skin until you feel confident you’ve got it right.

Method 1: Look at a group photo

Comparison is the thief of joy, but it’s easier to pick your undertone out when it’s part of a lineup. So dig through the annals of your Facebook tagged photos and find some photos of yourself with a friend (bonus points for multiple friends).

Unedited photos taken outdoors in good, natural light will give you the most accurate representation of skin undertone — but any group shot will do.

Method 2: Find your celebrity look-alike

…Okay, okay, not an exact look-alike, but an undertone look alike. Finding a celebrity skin tone match can really help with finding your undertone. Just hop on over to Google Image Search and query something like “pale celebrities with olive undertones.”

If you choose this method, try not to overthink it — the abyss of red carpet photos is bottomless, poreless, and maybe a little too photoshopped. Try to keep it real!

Method 3: Swatching

Foundation swatches are one of the best ways to spot your undertone, so long as you know your product’s undertone. Give this method a shot the next time you’re browsing a makeup store.

Swatching on your jawline works best for spotting a color match, since it doesn’t get as much sun exposure as other parts of our face and body. Don’t match foundation to your arms (which tend to be tanner) or your neck (which tends to be paler).

Method 4: Talk to a pro

There’s lots of “true match” technology out there that uses a tool to scan your skin, but experienced makeup artists and store employees can often tell an undertone by sight. These consults usually come with product recommendations for foundations well-matched to your skin.

Most of the time, this advice is free. Regardless of whether or not you make a purchase, you can keep the knowledge of your undertone at no extra cost.

Method 5: White balancing

Compare your skin to something stark white — a sheet of paper works, or white fabric (so long as it’s truly white, not eggshell or cream). Hold it against your inner arm, or next to your face while you look in a mirror. This might help you see your undertone more clearly.

This is similar to how white balancing works in photography: just point your lens toward a white sheet of paper to get the most accurate color gauge.

Method 6: Silver or gold?

Some people find that their jewelry preferences correlate to their undertones: those with cool undertones tend to prefer silver, warm undertones prefer gold, and neutral undertones can go either way.

Take this method with a grain of salt — there’s no reason we can’t all rock whatever jewelry we want, regardless of our undertone!

Method 7: It’s all in vein

The veins visible on our inner arm or around our wrist can reveal undertones. Cool-toned skin usually has blue veins, while warm-toned has green. If you’re neutral, you might not be able to tell.

But, in my experience, the vein-spotting technique is less than exact! I have a warm undertone, but my veins look blue to me, which is one reason why I wore the wrong color foundation for years. The color of your veins might also change depending on the light — always examine your skin in good, natural light whenever possible.

Why it’s hard to find your undertone

Some people have an easy time figuring out their undertone — then there’s the rest of us. At the end of the day, your exact undertone is more art than science. And once you do know your undertone, it still might not look “right.”

1. Brand constructs. What one brand considers “neutral” could be another brand’s “warm.” It can get even more confusing if you rely on shade names like “ivory” or “mahogany,” which can look very different across brands.

2. Color-correcting. You might prefer a foundation with your “opposite” undertone because of color correcting. For example, if you have a lot of red in your skin, you might prefer a warm-toned foundation, because the hints of yellow “cancel out” the redness.

3. Self-perception. Most of us form ideas about what our undertone should be without even realizing it. I have a warm undertone, but I just assumed my sister’s cool-toned foundation would work fine for me when I first got into makeup.

4. Lack of representation. Often, the more melanin-rich you are, the fewer foundation shades match your undertone — many brands choose to release only a few warm-toned “deep” shades for the entire Black community. Recently, the success of brands like Fenty Beauty has been pushing the beauty industry to be more inclusive, so let’s keep the pressure on.

5. Health. While it’s generally thought that your undertone stays the same (even as our skin tone fluctuates), some underlying health conditions can make your skin look more yellowish, or give you more pallor. This may make it especially difficult for people who live with chronic illness to find a good foundation match.

Many people go through a lot of trial-and-error before figuring out their undertone. Until you can find your perfect foundation match, try lighter-coverage products like tinted moisturizers and BB creams. These products tend to have less pigment, which makes them easier to blend into the skin (not to mention easier to apply).

If you’re ready for product recommendations, check out these no-breakout makeup reviews:

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So that’s what I know, as Curology’s resident beauty geek. If you’ve read this far, treat yourself to a freebie and get a free month of Curology. You’ll pay $4.95 (+ tax) to cover shipping/handling on your first subscription box, featuring a bottle of customized cream with a mix of up to 3 active ingredients for your unique skin. You can complete your routine by adding any Curology product to your box (I’m a big fan of the acne body wash and emergency spot patch, personally). After that, you can cancel any time, or pick the subscription plan that works for you.

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Stephanie Papanikolas

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